A Friday Evening with Mr. Bridgeport

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Paulie Walnuts
Paulie Walnuts

Our favorite bartender was on duty, mixing up killer $5 martinis as big as fishbowls.

The bar wasn’t crowded, and we landed our favorite seat against the window where I could catch the White Sox and she could watch the cops pulling people over on Harlem Avenue.

This is our Friday night, like it or not.

Friday is our date night.

Sometimes we talk a lot. Like crazy stuff. Heavy duty relationship stuff.

And sometimes we just people watch.

This little barbecue joint in the burbs is good for that. So is our relationship.

Tonight this guy at the bar starts flirting with my wife, which is not exactly unexpected. For a 40-year-old woman, my wife is hot and fresh and conversational.

I don’t blame this old sot.

Then he starts telling us stories, and I realize that he’s old-school Chicago, one of those you want to hear before they go extinct.

The same reason I tried to get as much fill of Rick Kogen during his three-month stint as fill-in host on WBEZ.

This guy sitting across from us looks a little like Joe Pesci, without the slick-backed black hair. His stood up a little, gray on the sides, salt and pepper in the middle. Maybe a little more Paulie Walnuts from Sopranos.

He’s wearing a black Nike golf shirt with Miami Vice colors streaking across the front and shoulders tucked into gray slacks.

I’ll call him Gary.

His accent could come from New York, but it doesn’t, it’s all Chicago.

“So I raised a couple a kids, and I’m retired,” Gary says.

“What’s with da cops in this neighborhood? Eh?” he asks.

“They’re pretty strict around here,” my wife replies.

“Yeah, they pulled me over one night,” Gary says. “One young guy, he’s a jagoff, the other guy is retiring soon, he’s okay.”

We listened to his story while downing a plate of hot wings and some Greek pork skewers with lemon and tzaziki sauce, which Gary kept looking at and then trying to catch the waitresses attention.

“Da one guy gets me outa my car,” he explains. “Young punk, tryin’ a tell me what to do and all.”

“Second guy, he’s a good guy, he says lighten up Lenny, to the younger cop,”

“I tell da guy I just moved out to the suburbs from Bridgeport, and maybe I dunno the roads so well.”

“The old guy tells me he’s about to retire,” Gary says. “So I say, hey, me too. I was a bricklayer in the city 35 years. Just got my gold watch.”

“What’s the limit around here anyway?” Gary asks us. “I blew a point zero nine, or something like that.”

The problem started when Gary decided to tell the young cop he’d been in the city visiting his girlfriend. The older cop asked him if he had anyone could come pick him up.

“I’ll call my wife, see if she can come get me,” Gary says.

“Wife?,” the young cop said. “He said he was in town visitin’ his girlfriend.”

“Is that true?” the older cop asked him.

“Yeah, I was in town visiting a girlfriend, but the wife don’t know, ya know what I mean?”

The two cops just laughed at him.

Gary looked at us and says, “I ain’t go not girlfriend, right, it’s just somethin’ I told these jagoffs.”

Apparently the old cop sees something in this old bricklayer, and he’s done playing good cop/bad cop.

“The cop says, ‘Tell ya what, I’ll give you a ride home, tell me where ya live.’”

Gary relished the story and then told us he stays off the the main roadways now, which reminds me to stay on the main roadways in the evenings.

I could listen to Gary’s old-school Chicago stories all night. He tells us about growing up in Bridgeport and his family’s deli, his godfather and the good ol’ days when a neighborhood was a neighborhood.

He has trouble remember how old his kids are and regrets giving them too much help along the way.

“Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t a given them cars and stuff, they gotta learn how to pay for these things themselves,” he laments.

Over the course of our visit, he drank a whole bottle of wine himself.

“Been going through this wine a lot since I retired,” he says. “It’s $30 a bottle, but it’s good.”

He orders takeout as we finish up our wings and our martinis. And he goes quiet for a little bit.

“My wife works across the street at her brother-in-law’s place,” Gary says. “So I come here a lot and watch TV.”

There’s a lot going on with Gary. He carries a lot of the city in his voice and his stories. But he’s also like every other guy out there. He’s lonely and bored and living with regrets. He finds a little solace in a bottle of red wine, a pretty waitress and a couple of talkative people at the bar across the street from where his wife is working.

He likes talking about all the things he got away with in life but wishes his kids wouldn’t get away with so much, because he really does know better now.

His hands are cracked and scarred by 35 years of tapping bricks and slapping mortar in between the cracks. He knows what Chicago is made of.

He’s disappointed that we live in a house built on a golf course he used to play when he was younger.

And he doesn’t like the cops in this small place south and west of Chicago.

Unless they’re retired.

“A retired cop is a good thing,” he says. “Am I right?”

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